The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan, by James Justinian Morier

Chapter xliii

He relates a horrid tale, the consequences of which plunge him in the greatest misery.

In a few days after the camp was struck, and the Shah returned to his winter quarters at Tehran, in the same pomp and parade with which he had left it. I had resumed my post as sub-lieutenant to the chief executioner, and was busily engaged in disposing of the men under my command, that the best order might be preserved during the march, when I was commanded to send off a messenger to Tehran, with orders that the bazigers, the dancers and singers, should be in readiness to receive the Shah on his arrival at Sulimanieh. This place, as I have said before, is a palace situated on the banks of the Caraj, about nine parasangs from the capital.

On receiving this order, my long-forgotten Zeenab came again to my recollection, and all my tender feelings which, owing to my active life, had hitherto lain dormant, were now revived. Seven months were elapsed since we had first become acquainted; and although during that time I had lived with men of a nature sufficiently barbarous to destroy every good feeling, yet there was something so terrible in what I imagined must now be her situation, and I felt myself so much the cause of it, that my heart smote me every time that the subject came across my mind. ‘We shall soon see,’ thought I, ‘if my fears be well founded. In a few days more we reach Sulimanieh, and then her fate will be decided.’

On the day of our arrival I headed the procession, to see that every proper arrangement had been made within the palace; and as I approached the walls of the harem, within which the bazigers had already taken their station, I heard the sounds of their voices and of their musical instruments. What would I not have given to have spoken to Zeenab, or even to have observed her at a distance! But I knew that it would not be prudent to ask many questions concerning her, as suspicions, dangerous both to her and me, might arise, and probably involve us in immediate ruin. Indeed, had I been inclined to give myself much stir on the subject, it would have been to no purpose; for very shortly after I heard the salute fired from the Zamburek camels, which indicated that the Shah had alighted from his horse.

After he had smoked one pipe in his hall of state, and had dismissed the courtiers who attended him, he retired to the harem.

Upon his entrance there, I heard the songs of the women, accompanied by tambourines, guitars, and little drums, rending the air as they walked in procession before him. Well did I listen with all my ears to discover Zeenab’s voice; but every endeavour was baffled, and I remained in a disagreeable state of vibration betwixt hope and fear, until a hasty order was issued for my old master, Mirza Ahmak, the king’s physician, to appear immediately before the Shah. Combinations of the mind in all matters of deep interest are formed as quick as thought, and act like the foretellings of prophecy. When I heard that the hakîm was sent for, a cold thrill ran through my veins, and I said to myself, ‘Zeenab is lost for ever!’

He came, was soon dismissed, and seeing me at the door of the harem, took me on one side, and said, ‘Hajji, the Shah is much enraged. You remember the Cûrdish slave, which I presented to him at the festival of the No Rûz. She has not appeared among the dancing-women, and pretends to be ill. He loves her, and had set his heart upon seeing her. He has called me to account for her conduct, as if I could control the caprice of this daughter of the devil; and says, that if he does not find her in full health and beauty when he reaches the ark (the palace), which will be on the next best fortunate hour, he will pluck my beard out by the roots. Curse the unlucky moment which made her my slave; and still more the hour when I first invited the Shah into my house.’

Upon this he left me, to set off immediately for Tehran, whilst I retired to my tent, to ruminate over the horrid fate that awaited this unfortunate girl. I endeavoured to rally my spirits by the hope that perhaps she was actually ill, and that it had been impossible for her to appear before the king; and then I consoled myself with the idea, that if my fears were well founded, the doctor’s heart might be softened, and he might screen her from the Shah’s observation, by giving some evasive reason for her non-appearance. Then, after all, as if braving my feelings, I repeated to myself the lines of one of our poets, who, like me, had lost his mistress.

‘Is there but one pair of stag eyes, or one cypress waist, or one full-moon face in the world, that I should so mourn the loss of my cruel one?

‘Why should I burn, why should I cut myself, and sigh out my griefs under the windows of the deaf-eared charmer?

‘No, let me love where love is cheap; for I am a miser of my feelings.’

Thus I endeavoured to make light of the subject, and to show myself a true Mussulman by my contempt for womankind. But still, turn where I would, go where I would, the image of Zeenab, a torn and mangled corpse, was ever before my eyes, and haunted my imagination at all seasons and at all hours.

At length the fortunate hour for the Shah’s entry was announced, and he entered Tehran amidst the whole of its population, who had been turned out to greet his arrival. My most pressing want was to see the hakîm, as if by chance, in order that no suspicion might fall upon me, in case poor Zeenab was found guilty. On the very evening of our arrival, my wishes (alas! how fatally!) were accomplished. As I was taken up in giving some orders to a nasakchi, I saw him come out of the Shah’s private apartment, looking full of care, with one hand stuck in his girdle, the other in his side, his back more bent than usual, and with his eyes fixed on the ground. I placed myself in his way, and gave him the salutation of peace, which caused him to look up.

When he had recognized me, he stopped, saying, ‘You are the very man I was seeking. Come hither;’ and he took me on one side: ‘Here is a strange story afloat,’ said he; ‘this Cûrd has brought all sorts of ashes on my head. Wallah! by Heaven, the Shah has run clean mad. He talks of making a general massacre of all that is male, within and without his harem, beginning with his viziers, and finishing by the eunuchs. He swears by his own head, that he will make me the first example if I do not find out the culprit.’

‘What culprit? who? what?’ said I, ‘what has happened?’

‘Why, Zeenab,’ answered he, ‘Zeenab.’

‘Oh! I understand,’ said I; ‘Aye! she you used to love so much.’

‘I?’ answered the Hakîm, as if afraid of being himself suspected, ‘I? Astaferallah! Heaven forbid! Do not say so for pity’s sake, Hajji, for if such a suspicion were once hinted, the Shah would put his threat into immediate execution. Where did you ever hear that I loved Zeenab?’

‘Many things were reported concerning you at that time,’ said I, ‘and all were astonished that a man of your wisdom, the Locman of his time, the Galenûs of Persia, should have embarked in so frail and dangerous a commodity as a Cûrdish maid, one of the undoubted progeny of the devil himself, whose footsteps could not be otherwise than notoriously unfortunate; who, of herself, was enough to bring ill luck to a whole empire, much more to a single family like yours.’

‘You say true, Hajji,’ said Mirza Ahmak, as he shook his head from side to side, and struck his left hand on the pit of his stomach. ‘Ah! marvellous fool was I ever to have been caught by her black eyes! in fact, they were not eyes, they were spells:— the devil himself looked out of them, not she, and if he is not in her now, may I be called Gorumsak all the rest of my days. But, after all, what shall I do?’

‘What can I say?’ answered I. ‘What will the Shah do with her?’

‘Let her go to Jehanum,’ answered the doctor; ‘let her go to her father’s mansion, and a good journey to her. I am only thinking of my own skin.’

Upon this, looking up tenderly at me, he said, ‘Ah, Hajji! you know how much I have always loved you: I took you into my house when you were houseless — I placed you in a good situation, and you have risen in your profession all through me — allow that there is, or that there ought to be such a thing in the world as gratitude — you have now an opportunity of exercising it:’ then pausing for a while, and playing with the tip of my beard, he said, ‘Have you guessed what I wished to say?’

‘No,’ said I, ‘it has not yet reached my understanding.’

‘Well, then,’ said he, ‘in two words, own that you are the culprit. A great loss of consideration would accrue to me, but none to you; you are young, and can bear such a story to be told of you.’

‘Loss of consideration, indeed!’ exclaimed I, ‘what is that when the loss of life will ensue? Are you mad, oh Hakîm, or do you think me so? Why should I die? why do you wish to have my blood upon your head? All I can say, if I am questioned on the subject, is, that I do not think you guilty, because you were ever too much in fear of the khanum, your wife; but I will never say that I am guilty.’

Whilst in the middle of our conversation, one of the Shah’s eunuchs came up to me, and said that his chief had been ordered to see that the sub-lieutenant to the chief executioner, with five men, were in waiting at the foot of the high tower at the entrance of the harem, at the hour of midnight; and that they were to bring a taboot, or hand-bier, with them, to bear away a corpse for interment.

All I could say in answer was ’be cheshm! (by my eyes)’; and lucky was it for me that he quitted me immediately, that Mirza Ahmak had also left me, and that it was dusk, or else the fear and anguish which overwhelmed me upon hearing this message must have betrayed me. A cold sweat broke out all over my body, my eyes swam, my knees knocked under me, and I should perhaps have fallen into a swoon, if the counter fear of being seen in such a state, in the very centre of the palace, had not roused me.

‘What,’ said I to myself, ‘is it not enough that I have been the cause of her death, must I be her executioner too? must I be the grave-digger to my own child? must I be the ill-fated he who is to stretch her cold limbs in the grave, and send my own life’s blood back again to its mother earth? Why am I called upon to do this, oh cruel, most cruel destiny? Cannot I fly from the horrid scene? Cannot I rather run a dagger into my heart? But no, ’tis plain my fate is ordained, sealed, fixed! and in vain I struggle — I must fulfil the task appointed for me! Oh world, world! what art thou, and how much more wouldst thou be known, if each man was to lift up the veil that hideth his own actions, and show himself as he really is!’

With these feelings, oppressed as if the mountain of Demawend and all its sulphurs were on my heart, I went about my work doggedly, collecting the several men who were to be my colleagues in this bloody tragedy; who, heedless and unconcerned at an event of no unfrequent occurrence, were indifferent whether they were to be the bearers of a murdered corpse, or themselves the instruments of murder.

The night was dark and lowering, and well suited to the horrid scene about to be acted. The sun, unusual in these climates, had set, surrounded by clouds of the colour of blood; and, as the night advanced, they rolled on in unceasing thunders over the summits of the adjacent range of Albors. At sudden intervals the moon was seen through the dense vapour, which covered her again as suddenly, and restored the night to its darkness and solemnity. I was seated lonely in the guard-room of the palace, when I heard the cries of the sentinels on the watch-towers, announcing midnight, and the voices of the muezzins from the mosques, the wild notes of whose chant floating on the wind ran through my veins with the chilling creep of death, and announced to me that the hour of murder was at hand! They were the harbingers of death to the helpless woman. I started up — I could not bear to hear them more — I rushed on in desperate haste, and as I came to the appointed spot, I found my five companions already arrived, sitting unconcerned on and about the coffin that was to carry my Zeenab to her eternal mansion. The only word which I had power to say to them was, ’Shoud? Is it done?’ to which they answered, ’Ne shoud. It is not done.’ To which ensued an awful silence. I had hoped that all was over, and that I should have been spared every other horror, excepting that of conducting the melancholy procession to the place of burial; but no, the deed was still to be done, and I could not retreat.

On the confines of the apartments allotted to the women in the Shah’s palace stands a high octagonal tower, some thirty gez in height, seen conspicuous from all parts of the city, at the summit of which is a chamber, in which he frequently reposes and takes the air. It is surrounded by unappropriated ground, and the principal gate of the harem is close to its base. On the top of all is a terrace (a spot, ah! never by me to be forgotten!) and it was to this that our whole attention was now riveted. I had scarcely arrived, when, looking up, we saw three figures, two men and a female, whose forms were lighted up by an occasional gleam of moonshine, that shone in a wild and uncertain manner upon them. They seemed to drag their victim between them with much violence, whilst she was seen in attitudes of supplication, on her knees, with her hands extended, and in all the agony of the deepest desperation. When they were at the brink of the tower her shrieks were audible, but so wild, so varied by the blasts of wind that blew round the building, that they appeared to me like the sounds of laughing madness.

We all kept a dead and breathless silence: even my five ruffians seemed moved — I was transfixed like a lump of lifeless clay, and if I am asked what my sensations were at the time, I should be at a loss to describe them — I was totally inanimate, and still I knew what was going on. At length, one loud, shrill, and searching scream of the bitterest woe was heard, which was suddenly lost in an interval of the most frightful silence. A heavy fall, which immediately succeeded, told us that all was over. I was then roused, and with my head confused, half crazed and half conscious, I immediately rushed to the spot, where my Zeenab and her burden lay struggling, a mangled and mutilated corpse. She still breathed, but the convulsions of death were upon her, and her lips moved as if she would speak, although the blood was fast flowing from her mouth. I could not catch a word, although she uttered sounds that seemed like words. I thought she said, ‘My child! my child!’ but perhaps it was an illusion of my brain. I hung over her in the deepest despair, and having lost all sense of prudence and of self-preservation, I acted so much up to my own feelings, that if the men around me had had the smallest suspicion of my real situation, nothing could have saved me from destruction. I even carried my frenzy so far as to steep my handkerchief in her blood, saying to myself, ‘This, at least, shall never part from me!’ I came to myself, however, upon hearing the shrill and demon-like voice of one of her murderers from the tower’s height, crying out —‘Is she dead?’ ‘Aye, as a stone,’ answered one of my ruffians. ‘Carry her away, then,’ said the voice. ‘To hell yourself,’ in a suppressed tone, said another ruffian; upon which my men lifted the dead body into the taboot, placed it upon their shoulders, and walked off with it to the burial-ground without the city, where they found a grave ready dug to receive it. I walked mechanically after them, absorbed in most melancholy thoughts, and when we had arrived at the burial-place, I sat myself down on a grave-stone, scarcely conscious of what was going on. I watched the operations of the nasakchies with a sort of unmeaning stare; saw them place the dead body in the earth; then shovel the mould over it; then place two stones, one at the feet and the other at the head. When they had finished, they came up to me and said ‘that all was done’: to which I answered, ‘Go home; I will follow.’ They left me seated on the grave, and returned to the town.

The night continued dark, and distant thunders still echoed through the mountains. No other sound was heard, save now and then the infant-like cries of the jackal, that now in packs, and then by two or three at the time, kept prowling round the mansions of the dead.

The longer I remained near the grave, the less I felt inclined to return to my home, and to my horrid employment of executioner. I loathed my existence, and longed to be so secluded from the world, and from all dealings with those of high authority in it, that the only scheme which I could relish was that of becoming a real dervish, and passing the rest of my days in penitence and privations. Besides, the fear of having disclosed, both by my words and actions, how much I was involved in the fate of the deceased, came across my mind, and added to my repugnance of returning.

Day by this time began to dawn, and impelled, both by a sense of my danger and by my desire to quit a place which had become odious to me, I determined to proceed on foot to Kinaragird, the first stage to Ispahan, and then take advantage of the first caravan that should be going to that city.

‘I will go and seek consolation in retirement, and in the bosom of my family,’ said I to myself; ‘I will see what is become of my parents — perhaps I may reach the paternal roof in time to receive my father’s dying blessing, and by my presence give him in his old age the happiness of seeing his long-lost son restored to him. How shall I be able to go through my duties, with this misfortune about my neck? I have lived long enough in vice, and it is time that I should make the tobeh, or renounce my wicked ways.’

In short, this horrid event produced such an effect upon my mind, that had I continued in the sentiments it inspired me with through life, I might well have aspired to be placed at the head of our most holy dervishes.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58